Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 May 2008
Issue No. 896
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In the World's largest waiting room

In the second instalment on his excursion in Sudan, Mohamed El-Hebeishy is in Khartoum for more adventure

Click to view caption
A rickshaw passing in front of Mahdi's tomb

Sitting among friends in one of Cairo's old traditional cafژs, I heard the most intriguing comment when they found out I was heading for Khartoum: "Being in a hurry in Khartoum is simply unrealistic. It's the world's largest waiting room."

It was somewhere around 4am when my Kenya Airways flight landed at Khartoum International Airport. Though it was March, it felt like July, except for a summer night breeze timidly puffing every now and then. Deserted, with a couple of planes on the runway, there were only a handful of passengers, me included. A huge square-shaped hall, all with neon light, a bluish ambiance set the tone of the very quiet airport, if not for the monotonous hissing of the ceiling fans. Though it is not expected from employees to be energetic at such an hour, I finished all the procedures in a relatively short time. If you have experienced Cairo International Airport, the same welcoming committee is usually there. A big crowd of family and friends waiting impatiently for you, and if not, be waiting for someone else. End point in Cairo, the waiting crowd is there, all the nagging taxi drivers are there and the unbearable pollution of this horrendously crowded capital is also there. To my surprise, none of these were there in Khartoum. Despite the heat of the weather, the air smelled fresh. Aside from a couple of people who were waiting anxiously, that was the entire crowd I could spot. What really surprised me were the taxi drivers. Mind you, I might not look like some blond blue-eyed European tourist, but surely I don't look Sudanese either. Still, no nagging taxi drivers who don't take no for an answer. First, I was delighted by such a burden not being there, but in a few moments I was already thinking, "Downtown is only four kilometres away, but I still need a taxi." Standing outside the hall, puffing one of my cigarettes, I finally discovered where they were: parked in a queue in designated parking area. Though they could certainly spot me, none tried approaching. To wrap up the night of surprises, I am the one who ended up approaching the taxis, still of course needing to bargain the fare, and off I went, content for no other reason but for the laid-back first impression Khartoum cast on me.

Round the 1820s, Mohamed Ali Pasha, father of Modern Egypt, dispatched a 4,000-man military expedition to Sudan. It managed to conquer the north of the country. In no time, the Turco-Egyptian occupiers ordered the building of a new capital. They named it Khartoum. There are two theories behind the naming. One, and it is by far the more well known, is the "Elephant Trunk". This is what Khartoum as an Arabic word means. The Sudanese capital is where the White and the Blue Nile meet, and where they do, it looks like an elephant's trunk. The other theory is rather a story I heard from locals while in Sudan. "Khar" and "Toum", two words which mean in the Dinka's tongue "the king's place of residence". Could the Ottoman conquerors have come across these two words in the middle of their expedition, or perhaps some local aide proposed the naming? The possibilities are endless.

In less than a decade, what started off as a sleepy village by the Nile, was turning into one of the most important trade centres round the African continent. Khartoum was booming. It first depended on ivory trading, but soon a more lucrative trade was grabbing all the attention, effort and finance -- slave trading. Records of that bleak era of mankind reveal that Indian Ocean slavers along with their fellow criminals, the Trans-Saharans, both had sold more than 10 million black Africans into slavery. Khartoum, along with the island of Zanzibar off the Tanzanian coast, were among the main slave centres. Though Khartoum's public slave market was officially closed in 1854, the inhumane trade continued off city limits. Not being official anymore, the Egyptian occupiers did not have much of an option but to levy staggering taxes as a means of financing, and that was the last straw. Sudanese resentment of their suppressers grew unbearable and it finally triggered one of the most remarkable uprisings in the history of mankind -- The Mahdist Revolt.

On 12 August 1845, a boy was born to an Arab Sudanese family on the island of Dirar, off Dongola in North Sudan. With no passion for his father's profession as a local boat builder, the little boy wanted to study religion. It was a time of turbulence for Sudan. The occupiers' oppression augmented and the people's resentment grew by the minute. Like in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot", the Sudanese longed for a saviour. To the contrary of Becket's play, their prayers were answered and the boy who had turned into a pious leader, declared himself Al-Mahdi Al-Montazar, "the Awaited Savior". His real name was Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Al-Sayed Abdullah, better known as the Mahdi.

At first, the ruling Anglo-Egyptian condominium paid no attention to the uprising. Mocking their ragged cloth, spear and shields for weaponry, they dismissed them as Dervishes. But in no time, they gained power in number, and the Mahdist army was over 50,000 when it began its siege of Khartoum on 12 March 1884. Prior to the famous battle of Khartoum, there was a yet more important one; that of Al-Obeid back in 1883 during which the Mahdist army defeated the Egyptian troops and managed to capture a huge amount of gun-based armoury. The rebellion took off with nothing but swords and shields. The natural location of Khartoum gives it a defensive edge, protected to the north by the Blue Nile and to the west by the White Nile. For 10 months, the Mahdi and his army stayed put, waiting for the right moment, and indeed it came on 26 January 1885. Just two days before the arrival of British reinforcements, the water level dropped so low that the 50,000 Mahdists crossed the Nile on foot. Storming the city, the defending 7,000 Egyptian troops along with their commanding officer British General Charles George Gordon were all killed. With the capture of Khartoum, most of modern-day Sudan came under the control of the Mahdi, and was declared a religious state -- the Mahdiyah. Nonetheless, time was not on his side. Six months later the renowned warrior and charismatic leader died of typhus. He is buried in one of the most soul-soothing mausoleums I have ever visited, the Mahdi's Tomb in Omdurman. Make sure to visit it on a Friday as it is closed for the rest of the week.

Just like there is Greater Cairo, there is also Greater Khartoum composed of Khartoum, Omdurman and Khartoum Bahari (Khartoum North), three seemingly similar yet distinctively different cities. Khartoum is where most of the civil works, embassies, ministries and municipal bodies are located. Renowned for its Souq Arabi district, where narrow streets act as open markets, one can still smell the air of a fading colonial era in other parts of the city. Cross the Blue Nile on foot using the new bridge, a lovely sunset stroll to say the least. You will end up in Khartoum Bahari, a semi- industrious city that can still attract you with its weekly wrestling event. Go to the other side and cross the White Nile and there you are, in the slow-paced Arab city of Omdurman.

When the Mahdi rose to power, the capital was shifted to Omdurman. Today this little, laid back more town than city, encloses both Mahdi's Tomb as well as Khalifa Museum, better known as Beit Al-Khalifa. The Mahdi was succeeded by Abdullahi Ibn Mohamed, better known in the book of history as Khalifa Abdullah. Once a house, now museum, Beit Al-Khalifa is a two-storey building connected with a series of courtyards. It hosts a rare collection of tokens mostly belonging to the Mahdiya State; rifles, coins, a letter from the Mahdi asking General Gordon to surrender, some traditional costumes, the Mahdi's copy of the Quran and most notably the first car in Sudan (it looks like any modern vehicle).

Hamad Al-Nil is a name you must not forget. Go to Omdurman on a Friday, two hours before sunset, stop any rickshaw and ask the driver to take you to Hamad Al-Nil. There is where the most renowned Dervishing takes place. Sufism as a branch of Islam is associated with both Sunni and Shia alike. It is about the purification of the soul in pursuit of inner peace. Those who practise it are often called Sufis, sometimes Dervishes. The Dervishing ceremony takes place every Friday around some of the big mosques in the capital, the most renowned being Hamad Al-Nil. Forming a big circle, the ceremony starts with Madeeh, chanting words of gratitude to the Prophet Mohamed. The audience interacts with the chanters, dancing to the rhythms of the percussion instruments. Next comes Zikr, in which the dervishes start whirling around. With the music, the fragrance of burning frankincense, the endless repetition of religious chants, and the dizziness, they fall into a trance.

Sufism started in Baghdad and later spread to Persia, India, North Africa and Spain. Each Sufi order is called Tariqa, with Qadiriyah being one of the most widespread in Sudan and North Africa. It was established by Abdul-Qadir Jilani (1077-1166 AD), a native of the Iranian province of Gilan. Hamad Al-Nil was one of the 19th century Qadiriyah leaders, where Dervishing takes place today and where his mausoleum is. The Dervishing in Omdurman is an experience not to be compared. It is majestic, stunningly beautiful, eccentrically exotic and if you are a photographer, I bet you will step into your own state of frenzy -- photography frenzy.

When it comes to distances, Greater Khartoum is nothing like Cairo. I guess very few cities in the world can rival this gigantic goliath we call home. Going from anywhere heading anywhere in Greater Khartoum is not an issue. You can howl for a taxi, stop a rickshaw or go for public transport. I wanted to experience Khartoum to the extreme, so I took the bus to Estad (main bus station close to Souq Arabi in Khartoum) from where I took another bus to Souq Seta in Khartoum Bahari. I wanted to see Nuba wrestling.

Let us first clear up a possible confusion. The Nuba as mentioned here is not in reference to Nubia but to the Nuba Mountains located south of Kordofan. The Nuba Mountains can be mocked as a microscopic example of Sudan. Extremely diverse, the Nuba Mountains is an amalgam of ethnicities, religions, beliefs and traditions. Not growing above the level of villages, this confined territory contains more than 50 spoken dialects and languages, different ethnicities from all over Sudan, Islam, Christianity and traditional religions as well. This Babel of cultures have agreed on one core thing -- wrestling. Back in Nuba, wrestling is a social event of great importance, as contestants from villages compete for the trophy. Though a similar event does take place every Friday in Khartoum Bahari, there are differences. Wrestlers in Souq Seta are required to be fully dressed while back home in Nuba they are usually half naked and often covered with ashes and animal skins. Whether or not you are into violent sports, Nuba wrestling in Khartoum Bahari is highly recommended. The only issue you may face is that it coincides with the Dervishing in Omdurman, so you need to make a judgement call.

I am not really into museums. Something about behind-the-glass type of displays put me off. I prefer to see things as they are in their original sites. Nevertheless, the National Museum of Sudan left me with a completely different impression. The two-storey building plays host to some priceless artefacts that go as back as prehistoric Sudan as well as the rise of the civilisations of Kerma and Kush, onward to Ancient Egypt and Hellenistic-influenced epochs. Still, the most amazing part of the museum is actually the second floor which covers the Christian kingdoms of Sudan. Prior to my visit, I had heard little, if any, of this part of Sudanese history. But when I visited the museum I was mesmerised. Stunningly beautiful frescos of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, along with renowned saints and apostles, make up the valuable collection. Though the Byzantine touch can be clearly sensed, the frescos painted between the eighth and 14th centuries maintained their authentic Nubain identity. Salvaged from the Monastery of Faras by a Polish archeological expedition in the 1960s, the site now lies under the water of Lake Nasser. Another museum that can be nice to visit is the Ethnographic Museum which attempts to bridge the differences between the various Sudanese tribes and ethnicities by showing their identity and distinctive peculiarities. Still in the heart of the city, there is the Khartoum War Cemetery, a distant site that contains the graves of those brave soldiers who fought along the Allied forces during World War II.

Walking the streets of the capital one Saturday afternoon I began to understand the reasons behind the laid-back feeling of this city. Two main reasons play the leading roles -- heat and outings. Heat is a major factor that simply puts you off, and based on my own personal experience, a walk in Khartoum in March at 3pm is like walking in an oven. The heat is simply scorching. When it comes to outings, your choices are limited, and I mean really limited. First you need to remember Sharia (Islamic law) is applied in Sudan, aside from the Southern part, and hence nightlife is almost non- existent. No bars, clubs, hangouts or anything of the sort. Your choice of restaurants and cafژs is not that big either. Go to the area known as Khartoum 2 and you can find yourself a couple of good spots like Little India in case you are looking for some different cuisine, and Cafژ Ozone if you would like to experience the up-scale cafژ scene of a capital on the rise.

And indeed Khartoum is a capital on an accelerated rise, courtesy of the oil bonanza. The more barrels being pumped every morning, the more earnings are being pumped into the government's budget and this can be clearly noticed by simply walking the streets of the capital. With the hope of turning the African city into a regional hub, a business centre connects two close, yet distanced worlds, North and Sub-Saharan Africa, and multi-million dollar projects dot the city. Burj Al-Fateh is an ambitious project financed by Libyan leader Muammar Al-Gaddafi at an estimated cost of $80 million. Taking the shape of a dhow and located at the meeting point of the Blue and White Nile, this modern 21-floor steel and glass type of architecture is set to house a five-star hotel with a capacity for 230 luxury rooms, six restaurants and cafژs, high-end shopping mall, high-tech business centre, you name it. Please don't jump to conclusions. This is not a one of a kind type of edifice in Khartoum. Al-Morjan is an even more ambitious top notch complex. We are talking 10 hotels, 1,100 villas and 6,700 flats. Adding them up, it brings the total number of potential residents somewhere close to 60,000 people. This is a $4 billion project that has created 50,000 jobs.

Today Khartoum is a sleepy city. Walk the downtown streets at 9pm and you won't even hear the music the city is so fond of. But with the downpour of petrodollars, will Khartoum continue its laid- back slow pace or are we looking at an African Dubai on the rise?

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 896 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Focus | Economy | International | Opinion | Press review | Culture | Living | Sports | Cartoons | Encounter | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map